What’s the first step in creating your dream career? Giving yourself permission to dream.
Ask yourself this question right now: If you could do anything in the world and be successful at it immediately, what would you do?
For some people, this is easy to answer—and those people are lucky. (I also find them to be annoyingly self-actualized and happy.)
For some of us, it’s paralyzing. If you couldn’t answer the question, you aren’t alone.
Years ago someone asked me a version of this question, and I panicked. I knew I should be able to answer the question, but the truth was, my brain froze. Any idea that struggled to consciousness in my brain was met with withering criticism from the other side of my mind.
Nothing I came up with seemed adventurous enough, cool enough, interesting enough, so in nano seconds, the ideas were cast aside as too plebian, trite, or boring.
Most of all, I didn’t want to get it wrong. Here was my big opportunity to allow myself to voice my innermost passions and dreams—and the best I could do was mumble a feeble, “I don’t know. Help people?”
Well-meaning people would pelt me with job suggestions, people to contact, stories of people they knew who made it big. None of the suggestions ever sounded right, and so I’d just crawl deeper into a hole that got smaller and smaller. Not only was I doomed, I was just plain lame!
Ten years ago, I knew I was in the wrong job, but I could not, for the life of me, figure out what would be the RIGHT job. And so I just kept changing jobs, hoping that by changing environments, co-workers and job titles I’d happen upon something I liked better.
I didn’t find anything better. No matter where I went, there I was.
I was trying to figure it out. I was trying hard. I spent two days of PTO to go through extensive and expensive aptitude testing at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation to make sure that what I thought were my talents were truly my talents—and to see if there were hidden gems I just hadn’t discovered yet. It was helpful and eye-opening in some respects, but I still really didn’t know what to do with my life. The aptitude testing underscored that I was, in fact, in the wrong field.
I researched Master’s degree programs in Career Counseling and flew to Fort Collins to visit the school and city. But I was so freaked out about being on a college campus and trying to imagine being back in school that I couldn’t even bring myself to talk to anyone at the school. I chickened out completely.
I also worked with a couple different career coaches, took the Myers-Briggs inventory, and investigated life coaching programs that just didn’t appeal to me at the time. They were all virtual or too expensive and I was reluctant to be an entrepreneur.
As soon as I came up with even a glimmer of an idea, I squashed it with “reality”:
Oh, no, I could never do that. That’s for people who are ambitious.
I could never be a writer full time. It’s too isolating.
Owning your own business means you never get to take a vacation.
Who wants to go back to school at my age? I’m too old for that.
I’d probably get bored.
Eventually, I just stopped imagining … anything.
I was stuck.
I kept waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike and electrify me past the inertia.
It finally came when I stopped having to know exactly how everything was going to work and all my questions and doubts were answered.
I was on vacation. I had decided to take a road trip and camped in one of the parks among the redwood trees in California. I’d walked the dog, broken camp and re-packed the car. The smell of cedar permeated the air. As I was pulling out of the state park, I said out loud to my car, “Something has got to change. Something has got to give. I don’t know what it is, but it’s got to change.”
And in that moment, I surrendered control to knowing how it would all work out. Instead, I simply committed to doing my life differently.
I still didn’t know what “it” was.
The answer came the next day as I listened to my cousin describe what she was learning in her coach training program. It was exactly what I’d been looking for, and finally, I was ready to see it and do it.
So how do you figure out what your dreams are when your brain goes blank when you ask yourself the question?
First of all, realize that going blank doesn’t mean you don’t know. It means your brain is trying to protect you from something that is different. “Different” threatens the primitive part of your brain that just wants to stay safe.
No doubt, your brain will come up with a zillion criticisms about why your ideas are dumb and wrong. However, all those criticisms and self-doubt may actually be a sign that you’re on the right track. The things that scare us are often the things we need to do to grow. Is it uncomfortable? Yep. But stepping out of your comfort zone and taking action toward what you fear also helps boost you over the hump of discomfort out of a ho-hum life into one that is beyond your dreams.
Secondly, it’s impossible to figure out your dream career if all you do is criticize the ideas you have. Choose one of those ideas and take a miniscule step toward it. Be open to what you discover. You just might surprise yourself.
We may think it is easier and safer to believe “reality” and choose what is familiar.
But it isn’t easier. If we don’t know what our dreams are and don’t pursue them, we’re uncomfortable in our own skin. Things don’t seem right. It’s hard to find contentment, peace, or gratitude.
I believe it is our responsibility to identify and nurture our dreams. The world depends upon it. Remember what the Dalai Lama says: “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”
So, fast forward 10 years, give or take…at the time of writing, I was sitting in Florida in the middle of January (while Portland was snowbound). I’m writing, coaching and hanging with family. Palm trees out the window. The beach 100 feet away. Later, I’m taking the dog to the dog beach and going out to dinner with the family.
I could not have predicted this would be available to me. I had to commit that no matter what, I would make my life different. And then I had to let go of all the criticism so that I could actually dream of a different future.